The Angry Women of Shaheen Bagh

In normal times, Delhi’s Shaheen Baug area would be in danger of falling off the city map, a dingy, congested locality with open drains and dangerously dangling power cable lines. But these are not normal times in the overcrowded areas that surround Jamia Nagar, the epicenter of anti-Citizen Amendment Act protests in the national capital. Which is why the otherwise nondescript Shaheen Baug has suddenly found a voice that resonates far and wide: every day, round the clock, braving the severe winter cold, large groups of women sit in protest here on the street. Many of them are working professionals who join the gathering after office while others are housewives who even bring their children to be part of the experience. Raising slogans, chanting songs, drawing posters, blocking traffic, seeking justice, shattering every stereotype. This is a community ‘mehfil’ as much as a demonstration. Not a stone has been thrown here in anger even though the rage is palpable. The fury is as much against the Delhi police who entered the Jamia library and targeted students as it is against the Modi government who they are convinced is ‘anti-Muslim’ in intent.

Few of those gathered seem to have read the fine print of the new law but insist that the legislation is ‘draconian’. “Bharosa nahi hai,” (we don’t trust), when I remind them of the prime minister and home minister’s repeated promises that no Indian Muslim would be affected by the CAA and their claim that the National Register of Citizens has not even been discussed. Clearly, this is a battle of perception as much as of the legislative minutiae, where public sensitivities are clearly shadowed by the creeping communal imagery on the ground in places like Shaheen Baug.
It’s the lack of trust that lies at the heart of the continuing anti-CAA-NRC protests, a conviction in the minds of the protestors that the Modi government has a discriminatory, majoritarian mindset. “One day Amit Shah says all-India NRC is coming, next day PM Modi says it has not even been discussed, who do we believe, why should we have any faith in them?” one of the protestors in Shaheen Baug asks me pointedly.

“But aren’t you all also benefitting from government schemes like Ujwala, Mudra Yojna or an Ayushman Bharat, where is the Hindu-Muslim narrative in that,” is my counter-question. “This is only for votes at election time, do you really think that the prime minister treats us as equal citizens, unke sarkar ke liye hum sab aantakwadi hai!” (we are all terrorists for his government), an elderly woman hits back. Remember Shaheen Baug is not too far from Batla House, another Muslim-dominated zone in the neighbourhood which shot into public imagination after a terrorist encounter here in 2008 captured the front page headlines.

I persist with my line of questioning and ask them about the incidents of violence that have taken place in Jamia and other parts of the country during the anti CAA-NRC protests: buses burnt, public property damaged, firearms being used. “Aap TV wale wahi jalai gayi bus ki tasveer baar baar dikhate hain, hum to yahan ke police walon ko gulab aur paani dete hai!” (you TV persons keep showing images of a burning bus, we give roses and water to the police here!). TV news is the new ‘enemy’, the so-called ‘godi media’ seen as a surrogate of an autocratic state machinery.
So do you support the acts of violence, I ask. “Who says we are supporting any violence,” a bright-eyed young lady in a salwaz kameez counters, “ Stop blaming all of us for the violent acts of a few ‘outsiders’. Are we not allowed to peacefully protest for our right to live with dignity or will you now decide the rules for us on how to protest? And will you not speak of the violence of the police when they entered the library and beat up students in Jamia or targeted them in Aligarh, or broke into private property in Meerut?”

A WhatsApp video of a senior police officer from Meerut telling protestors to ‘go to Pakistan’ has gone viral in the area. Amoral technology cuts through religious boundaries and every incendiary video only adds to the sense of being encircled and persecuted by the ‘other’. “Would any policeman speak like this to any Jat or Gujjar protestor when these groups resort to violence, why should wearing a skull cap and a beard, or a burkha or hijab lead to our patriotism being questioned?” says an infuriated lady. I mumble something incoherently about how not every police officer is culpable or communal-minded, only to be cornered again by another livid voice: “Forget policemen, there are ministers in this government who keep telling Muslims to go to Pakistan!” (the reference I presume is to Giriraj Singh, minister in the Modi government and a serial offender in this regard).

This isn’t the only video that has gone viral in a highly surcharged atmosphere. I point out to a video of Amanatullah Khan, the local Aam Aadmi Party MLA from the area, making what prima facie appears to be a provocative speech where he warns the crowd that its getting difficult for Muslims to breathe and live with freedom. “Is this not a brazenly communal speech, why don’t you call him out?” I ask. The response I get is just as combative: “Dekhiye, woh yahan ke neta hai, agar woh hamari baat uthate hai, to isme galat kya hai? Kya Amit Shah aur Yogi ji bhee iss tarah ke bhashan nahi karte, kya pradhan mantri ne shamshan aur kabrastan ki baat nahi ki?” (Look, he is our leader here, if he takes up our cause, whats wrong with it. Don’t Amit Shah and Yogi make similar speeches, didn’t the PM speak of a cremation and burial ground).

The argumentative interaction continues for almost an hour. Its getting darker and colder but the crowd isn’t melting away just yet. Some women have brought blankets and are planning to spend the night under the icy skies. I am preparing to leave when one of them gets in a last word: “Next time, please call us to the studio instead of the maulvis, pujaris and netas that you always do!”

Maybe I really should. Maybe our VIP netas and government ministers too should meet and listen to the women of Shaheen Baug if they want to step out of their self-comforting echo chambers of privilege. Trapped between victimhood and rage, these are voices that are both revealing and scary. They reveal the volcanic lava that is bubbling under the surface of increasingly fragile communal relations, threatening to erupt at the slightest trigger point. The divisive CAA-NRC debate has been one such trigger that has only further polarized the fault-lines within an already fragmented society. And yes, brought the stoic, incensed women of Shaheen Baug onto the streets.

Post-script: As I get into my car and switch the heater on, I gaze at the pot-holed roads, hanging power cable lines, the crazily crowded bylanes. I wonder when we will see urban protests break out over lack of jobs and crumbling infrastructure. Or will the toxic narrative of ‘muscular’ Hindutva and aggressive Islamism remain the overriding messaging, one that is ominous for society but perhaps politically convenient for the leadership of both communities?

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